By Eleanor Ringel Cater
In a manner of speaking, the Viet Cong meet King Kong in “Kong: Skull Island,” the newest iteration on the timeless theme of a gorilla the size of the Ritz.
Actually, the Kong we meet here is the size of several Ritz’s – plus the Empire State Building.
Speaking of which, the iconic skyscraper never appears. That’s because, as the title indicates, Kong never gets voted off the island. Nor – and this is a considerable relief – does he have the hots for a cute little blonde tiny enough to sit in the palm of his hand.
Oh, a pretty woman does end up, briefly, in Kong’s paw, but she’s a feisty brunette war photographer played by Oscar-winner Brie Larson, and she gets there when the ape saves her life.
The war in question is Vietnam, which has just wound down. That’s great timing for Bill Randa (John Goodman), a scientist of sorts who’s convinced some Washington powerbrokers to provide him with a military escort as he explores the mysterious Skull Island.
Hidden behind a menacing ring of storm clouds, Skull Island is indeed mysterious.
“There’s something out there, man,” says one of the soldiers drafted for monster-search duty.
“Oh, there’s a lot out there,” replies Randa.
But before we get to that, let’s introduce Randa’s team. Along with the aforementioned Larson, there’s Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) a hunky Brit tracker. And the war-mongering Lt. Col. Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) who’s still so PO’ed that the good ol’ U.S.A. lost the war, he’s determined to even the score by killing whatever they encounter on the island. And Marlow (scene-stealer John C. Reilly), a scruffy, surprisingly good-humored guy who’s been living on Skull Island ever since his plane crashed there in World War II.
Actually, Marlow is more like an aging hippie, which fits in nicely with the movie’s early ‘70s setting and “Apocalypse Now” homages. One example: A shot of helicopters silhouetted against a huge red sun (which was basically the “Apocalypse Now” poster) – only now there’s a giant ape in the shot, too. And let’s not ignore the nods to “Heart of Darkness,” the Joseph Conrad (um, see name of British tracker, above) novel on which the Francis Ford Coppola film was based.
Mostly, however there’s a whole bunch of fairly anonymous brave soldiers who are there to be crushed, smushed, mushed, swallowed and all sorts of other horrible things. Kong, it turns out, is a kind of benevolent monarch, keeping the island’s nastier inhabitants (giant squids, reptilian man-eaters, flying thingies) in line.
At heart, “Kong: Skull Island” is essentially a blustery B-movie with elegant A-movie special effects. That it works as well as it does is a tribute to director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (whose only previous feature was an indie coming-of-age film called “The Kings of Summer.”) Yes, there are a lot of movies with that same split, but there’s a difference here. You sense Vogt-Roberts, who apparently came up with the concept, has more invested in his picture than, say, blockbuster trash-meisters like Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer.
Or maybe he’s simply not as cynical (yet). “Kong: Skull Island” isn’t going to change your life. Nor can it hold a candle to the 1933 original. But there are some good thrills to be had here – and some good fun, too.